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Gigantic bánh chưng cake a waste of rice

Update: April, 30/2016 - 10:30
In order to celebrate the Hùng King anniversary, which falls on the fifth of the first lunar month, in the northern province of Phú Thọ, HCM City’s Đầm Sen Culture Park has made a bánh chưng that weighs 2.5 tonnes. To finish it, the park’s staff used 1.2 tonnes glutious rice, 300kg of green beans, 200kg of pork, 300kg of banana leaves and 50kg of lá dong. — Photo vietq.vn

By Thanh An and Duy Xuân

There is no merrier occasion of the year than national festivals. We pay tribute, pay homage and celebrate together. There wouldn’t be anything to fight over if it had not been caused by a giant bánh chưng (sticky rice cake).

Certainly, everyone loves cakes, but not the kind that are actually frightening.

In order to celebrate the Hùng King anniversary, which falls on the fifth of the first lunar month, in the northern province of Phú Thọ, HCM City’s Đầm Sen Culture Park has made a bánh chưng that weighs 2.5 tonnes. To finish it, the park’s staff used 1.2 tonnes glutious rice, 300kg of green beans, 200kg of pork, 300kg of banana leaves and 50kg of lá dong.

The cake is reported to have been cooked over four days, then transported by truck to the site. Nguyễn Hữu Trung, deputy director of the park, who directly gave out the guidance, said it cost VNĐ160 million (US$7,185) for the mould, oven and ingredients.

He added the cake was made with the aim to win the Vietnamese Guiness Record for biggest and longest cake of the year.

After the cake was uncovered and cut into large pieces to be distributed to people, most visitors that day were disappointed by its quality. 

To the public’s surprise, they have said it was not a real bánh chưng, which is square, a green, and smells sweet like glutinous rice and lá dong. What was inside the cake was a golden pulpy mix of green bean and cooked rice, leaving all visitors questioning if the cake was just... green bean sticky rice?

Nguyễn Thành Tâm, a visitor to the park, told a reporter he had never seen such a messy cake: “We only need to make bánh chưng and bánh dầy as Lang Liêu had done in history, simple as well as useful," he said. "I see no point in wasting money making those big cakes. By the time the cake was divided to everyone, it was already messy."

A reader of Việt Nam News says that if organisers of the park are that kind-hearted, why did they not bring those tonnes of glutinous rice to worship ancestors and then distribute the rice to the poor? She says there are still many poor people in our society, so the act would echo a hundred times better than making huge, silly cake.

The story takes me back to the real legend of the Hùng Kings. The textbook for sixth grade has the story of Lang Liêu, the 18th son of the sixth Hùng King, whose mother passed away early, so he did not know what to offer his emperor father as a feast drew near.

One night, in his dreams, he was instructed by a saint to make two cakes from rice, as rice was the most precious thing in the world. Liêu woke up and followed the guide, making bánh dầy (white, flat, round glutinous rice cake), which represented heaven, and bánh chưng, which represented earth.

While others siblings offered their father delicate and precious food from the moutains and the sea, Liêu submitted two such simple dishes, and unexpectedly, he was chosen to be the future emperor by the king.

From then, each time Vietnamese make bánh chưng and bánh dầy, they are reminded about the beautiful tradition “When drinking water, think of its source” to show tribute and deep gratitude to ancestors and their parents for giving birth to them. The two cakes are also symbols of simplicity and deep appreciation of descendants.

With that meaning, Nguyễn Nam Ngọc, a frequent visitor to the annual Hùng King festival, suggested that with that huge amount of rice, the organisers should make 5,000 small tradtional cakes and give each pilgrim one. Things would be solved and all would be happy.

According to another visitor to the park that day, the cake tasted a bit sour and musty.

“I was there on the day they cut the cake, and put the pieces into many boxes for everyone," the visitor said. "As I opened the box, a sour smell rose up so I threw it away. I thought I was the only one who felt that way, but other members of my family said they saw the cake was smelly, too. I heard the cake was too big so they had to cook it for over ten hours in hot weather. It absorbed too much water inside."

I also feel sorry for those who thought of this scheme.

In Vietnamese traditional cuisine, all dishes offered to the emperor must be delicate and sophisticated. A giant dish to show off finances will be considered ridiculous if inside it is just a big mess. Why couldn’t they think of something more delicate, creative and humanistic? We have never had such a mega invention, so what made those people think a giant cake would be a good idea?

According to Hà Kế San, deputy head of Phú Thọ People’s Comittee, said the anniversary is about folklore, spiritual culture and customs, so the province would not accept tributes that went against national history like a giant cake.

However, Vũ Ngọc Sơn, head of Phú Thọ Limited Company, which manages Đầm Sen Cultural Park, still stuck with his idea.

“We tried as much as possible to do thing economical," he said. "This is the first time we have made a giant cake. Previously, we only made traditional cakes and delivered them to local citizens and visitors from afar. This year, we wanted to do something special. If visitors could not stand this messy thing, they would have walked away instead of queuing for three hours under the scorching sun to enjoy it. I have to admit it wasn’t as tasty as the traditional one, but thousands of people tried the cake and no one got food poisoning, so that was our effort. We will receive all opinions and make a different one next time."

To conclude, I have no more to say but to quote stage director Nguyễn Việt Tú: “Many people think they have money and they can do whatever they like, as long as it does not cause harm to society, but it is significant that they use their money on useful things, rather than nonsense." VNS

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